Viewpoint: Let's help ourselves by being transparent

24 December 2015
Viewpoint: Let's help ourselves by being transparent

The British Hospitality Association has urged the government to make it a legal requirement to tell customers what happens to service charges and tips. Ufi Ibrahim explains why

It's time to accept that many restaurant customers struggle to understand the difference between a tip and a service charge What's more, they don't really understand what happens to the extra money they leave at the end of a meal.

Crowd sourcing enforcement is also becoming a reality, and one which appeals to the customer and the policy-maker. So isn't it time to accept that we need to do more to make our tipping policies clear, so the customer can make an informed decision?

The confusion has played a big role in generating negative headlines and unwelcome media attention for far too long.

The suggestion is that some restaurant and hotel owners use service charges as an extra revenue stream, rather than passing them on to their employees.

A lot of this coverage has been undeserved, as most restaurants do the right thing and realise the importance of rewarding staff for their hard work. But we haven't helped ourselves by not always making it clear to the customer what happens to the money our customers leave as a tip or add as a service charge.

Customers like to reward waiting staff for their hard work (and they like the option of not leaving any extra if the service has not been up to scratch).

As anybody who has done it will tell you, it's not easy being a waiter or waitress. It takes a special kind of person to be able to manage tables and keep everyone happy.

You're caught between the busy kitchen and demanding customers, and there's a lot that can go wrong. Doing that with enthusiasm and a smile is not always easy.

Nevertheless, when offered the information, most customers do appreciate that the service charge should also reward the whole team, including those in the kitchen, all of whom helped to create a great experience.

When informed, most also appreciate that ‘deductions' cover credit card charges and admin fees. So why should we make the bill-paying part of the experience so difficult for ourselves? Thanks to the media coverage, customers are much more likely to ask what happens to the service charge that is now routinely added to many bills.

Rather than leaving the waiter or waitress to explain, why don't we simply spell it out on our menus or on the bill itself?

Of course we know a good meal is the result of teamwork and hard graft from the whole restaurant team. Striking the right balance in terms of reward is not always easy for restaurant owners.

But we're not helping ourselves by keeping the customers in the dark about where the money goes. It creates distrust and a suspicion that restaurants are somehow making a ‘fast buck' by adding hidden charges at the end of the meal.

That's why we're asking the government to make it a legal requirement to tell customers how the money is distributed.

Already we've gathered support from industry leaders like Côte, Bill's and Whitbread Restaurants. Rick Stein has added his seal of approval too. We're delighted to have these high-profile backers for our proposal. All we hope is that many more in the industry follow suit and see that, in the end, we will all be winners.

Ufi Ibrahim is chief executive of the British Hospitality Association

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